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Hello again to all.

We suspect that most people—whether or not they are Christians with a sure and certain hope of the Resurrection—fall into two groups: those who are uncomfortable in and about churchyards, and those who instead find them places of unusual calm, clarity and peaceful beauty, localised invitations to prayer and reflection.

In travels far and near, particular cemeteries have elicited in us strikingly different emotions. At the UN cemetery in Pusan, South Korea, we were startled by the names of hundreds of Turkish solders who died there in the first armed conflicts of the Cold War. In Moravian cemeteries, we found a gentle calm infusing the air above their horizontal tombstones, laid flat for humility's sake lest in death their owners be too proud. In the Cree Anglican cemeteries of Western Canada, a deep stillness pervades where plain stones are covered with syllabic inscriptions and surrounded by little wooden fences. And the cemeteries of the German counties of Pennsylvania are petrified echoes of a dead and dying language, suffused alternately with robust strength in their design and a deep, almost palpable sadness. You can learn a lot about a place and its people from its cemeteries and get a lot of clear thinking time in the process.

The Christian tradition gives us some tension about what is an appropriate attitude toward burial and care for the dead, represented by two standard poles. On the one hand is our Lord's instruction to 'let the dead bury the dead.' On the other we have 'the noble Joseph' who earned the praise of centuries when he laid Jesus' body in a new tomb, and the myrrhbearing women who embalmed their dead Lord with spices. At the mean between these extremes we have a call to healthy and sincere reverence and care for the dead. As much as a church building, the human body is the place where all sacraments take place throughout the life of a Christian. Christian names flutter across oceans and the pages of baptismal certificates, passports, census documents and letters, but they usually come to rest in stone as carved, earthbound footnotes to the Book of Life.

And so it gives us pause to see sepulchral monuments for some of the pioneers of our faith in what are sometimes advanced states of decay or neglect. This is often due to inevitable aging and weathering, but not always. Potent threats to the survival of headstones include encroaching plants, trees, roots or animal burrows; pollution and development; and even vandalism. Since Anglicans have nothing on the order of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to do the careful, difficult and very important work of tending to Christian burials and their surroundings, this duty falls on individuals, parishes and dioceses who hopefully know best their local needs in this regard. We realise that the burden of this care almost always falls on church finances and church councils, and that decisions about restoring or maintaining churchyards must often—as well they should—take a second rung to decisions about how to care for the living who worship in our churches today. Clergy invariably seem to understand the importance of this maintenance, but rarely have enough money to do it. Perhaps parish work parties, the descendants of those buried in churchyards, local historical societies and community organisations could do much to care for these holy acres without causing a mention on the parish budget. Or are all of the descendants moved away, and parish work parties lost to football and week-end shopping?

Perhaps some of the lack of attention we notice in connection with Anglican graves has to do with our being less inclined than many other Christians to make pilgrimages to the burial sites of those who have lived Christ's love before us.* But we needed to look no farther away from home than our local Anglican cemetery yesterday afternoon to see an example of the saints at rest with memorials in sad disarray. The visit was a disturbing experience of the sort that often moves us into action.

This degree of destruction and neglect is upsetting, but it is not unique; examples could be multiplied across our region and indeed throughout this country. Since weather and age will continue to do their best to break down headstones and memorials, we must also do our best to maintain them in decent and godly order. Few stronger demonstrations could be made of the seriousness with which we believe in the communion of saints, and the sincerity of our belief that they who now rest in Christ shall also rise in him. Care for churchyards is not just a matter of good housekeeping within the Church of God; it is a missionary statement and a thorough demonstration of the words of our baptismal and burial liturgies:

And humbly we beseech thee to grant, that he, being dead unto sin, may live unto righteousness, and being buried with Christ in his death, may also be partaker of his resurrection; so that finally, with the residue of thy holy Church, he may be an inheritor of thine everlasting kingdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit; for they rest from their labours.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 7 May 2006

*Notable exceptions for post-reformation Anglicans can be found in an exuberant annual pilgrimage to the grave of Arthur Shearly Cripps in Zimbabwe, and in quieter, smaller annual visits throughout Wisconsin to the tombs of local saints James DeKoven, Charles Chapman Grafton, James Lloyd Breck and Jackson Kemper. It would be delightful to learn of other such instances.

(Click for an update on Cynthia's cancer.)

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